Free the Oppressed
Secret soldiers. Commandos for Jesus. Doctors Without Borders but with guns. I did my research. I had heard the Free Burma Rangers described as these things and more. I spent most of my 24-hour flight skimming news articles, reading up on history, and envisioning this missionary named David Eubank who was known for training rangers in the name of Jesus. I imagined an ultra-masculine, perhaps gladiatorial figure not to be messed with. I was prepared; I was expectant; I was entirely wrong.
The last light of day is dipping behind the acacia trees and visibility is becoming increasingly difficult as we drive down the dirt road to the Eubank home in a neighboring country to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. There is just enough glow left in the night to see horses running straight toward our car. We slam on the brakes, narrowly missing the herd. As my view sharpens, I recognize Dave and his three kids on the horses. “You must be our guests!” says Dave. “Be right back, we’re gonna go find some Indians.” They gallop into the night as I pick up my jaw from the ground.
Back at the ranch, I’ve barely put down my luggage before I am invited to go horseback riding under the moonlight. I eagerly oblige, nestling into the saddle not quite as smoothly as Sahale Eubank, 15, who swings onto her bareback horse in one seamless motion. We ride out to some nearby fields next to the stables. “How do you like growing up here?” I ask her, slightly envious of her seemingly idyllic childhood. “I love it,” she says. “God has blessed us so much.”
The next morning, the Eubanks are up before the sun, inviting me to join them on a “little” five-mile hike through the jungles surrounding the ranch. I’ve hardly been here for twelve hours, and it’s already clear that this family is a spirited, adventurous bunch, happy to extend any invitation to participate.
We head out on the trail after making sure everyone—including the rambunctious pet monkey—is accounted for. Dave invites me to run up the deceptively steep first mile. Play it cool, I tell myself. You’ve got this. Nothing you can’t handle. Before long all five of the Eubanks blaze up the trail with ease, leaving me in their dust. It’s not surprising—they’ve collectively climbed mountains all over the world. At six, Dave’s ten-year-old son Peter was the youngest climber to ever summit Grand Teton and Mount Rainier. This family is in superhuman shape.
After the trail levels out and I have enough oxygen in me to catch up and carry some semblance of conversation, Dave starts chatting with me about his appetite for adventure. “I love to climb, run, skydive, surf…but I really just love to help people who are getting beat up. If I could only do one thing, it would be to help bring freedom to the oppressed,” he says.
Perhaps greater than his love of life and family is his passion for the things of Jesus, for setting the captives free. An ex-Special Forces Ranger, Dave started the Free Burma Rangers nearly twenty years ago in response to the influx of internally displaced people affected by the “longest civil war in history.”
Decades of conflict continue to plague a country that is already described as one of the poorest in the world. Since independence was declared for Burma in 1948, fighting has flared up in different capacities between the government-controlled Burma Army and various ethnic “rebel” groups across the region. Yet despite a number of ceasefires over the years, as well as positive strides toward democracy, fighting still rages in ethnic areas while hundreds of thousands of refugees continue to be displaced and persecuted. Among them are 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims who are unrecognized by the government and considered by the U.N. as some of the most oppressed people of our time.
In 1997, the Burma Army launched its biggest offensive in fifteen years, displacing over 500,000 people in four months, from Karen State in the south to Karenni State in the southeast to Shan State in the northeast. The pressure of such offenses reached a new high as the number of refugees being pushed onto the Thai-Burma border passed 100,000 for the first time.
Enter Dave. Four years prior the Wa tribe of Burma asked him to provide training in survival and military tactics. By 1997, he and his wife Karen were living full-time in service to the Burmese people. One day in particular that year stands out in his memory. As 10,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) poured down the road through the Karen village on the border of Thailand, he climbed a nearby hill to see what was on the other side of the border.
What he saw lit a fire in him: IDPs—forced to carry their own rice to give to the Burma Army—were collapsing on the trail. The Burma Army was entering villages, looting supplies, capturing people, and relocating them to makeshift IDP camps. Dave photographed the scene as evidence, but that wasn’t enough. He needed to speak up. He needed to be a witness.
“Hey! Stop that! Let those people go free! We should love each other! This is not right!” he shouted. His calls successfully caught the attention of Burma Army soldiers who hastily responded with gunfire.
Dave scampered down the hillside within inches of his life as bullets whizzed by his head. On the other side of that hill stood a divine appointment: a Burmese man in fatigues, loaded with a hand grenade and M16, bright red earring in one ear like a pirate.
“My name is Eliyah, and I am a medic. Can I help you?”
“Yes,” Dave said. “Let’s help those who are sick and left behind.”
The two joined forces to help whomever they could, treating 1,000 people that first week until they ran out of supplies. At the end of the week, Eliyah looked back at the smoke billowing up from deep inside Burma. “My wife and children are back there,” he said. “I have to go find them.”
Before parting ways Dave gave Eliyah his Special Forces crest emblazoned with the motto, “De Oppresso Liber.” Free the Oppressed.
The phrase bears meaning for Dave beyond representing the U.S. Army’s Special Forces. He often recites Luke 4:18 and considers it his chief motivating scripture: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.”
The Free Burma Rangers (FBR) was born out of the unlikely pairing of an ex-Special Forces ranger and a notorious “wild man.” Dave and Eliyah were the blueprint for what would become a ragtag team of liberators; the following three rangers to join included an animist spirit-worshipper, an agnostic, and a murderer. All three came to know Jesus and live their lives in complete service to the hurting people of Burma.
Since its inception eighteen years ago, FBR has trained over 300 teams from twelve different ethnic pro-democracy organizations, conducted over 1,000 relief missions, treated over 550,000 patients, and helped over a million individuals. Each team consists of a medic, counselor, videographer, photographer, and team leader, thus encompassing a variety of facets of aid from medical care to counseling to documentation.
Dave cites three things needed to be a Ranger: love, literacy, and physical and moral courage. His number one rule? “We don’t run away if people can’t run away. Sometimes God will ask us to stand with our arms open and risk being killed; other times, I believe God asks us to stand and fight for those who can’t protect themselves.”
A more discreet yet critical facet of FBR’s operation is the documentation of atrocities committed by the Burma Army. FBR sends out hundreds of updates from the field annually, providing real-time information of the army’s attacks. Each team is trained in photography and videography in order to provide evidence of the human rights violations they witness. Such information is dispatched to media and news organizations, human rights watch groups, and governments who can issue sanctions and put pressure on Burma’s government.
Dave points to a number of incidents when FBR’s documentation directly impacted the Burma Army. In 2012, the army launched major airstrikes against the Kachin despite making a statement to the world that they were doing no such thing.
“Our teams had video of it,” Dave says. “We gave it to the BBC, which came out a day after the president of Burma made a public announcement to the United Nations that they don’t do this kind of thing. The day after that, he was embarrassed, said he didn’t know, and they stopped all the air attacks for about a year.”
It’s the tangible results the rest of the world sees, but it’s advocacy for the oppressed that compels Dave and the rest of the rangers. “I don’t think we’re responsible for results so much as actions,” Dave says. “From the very beginning we had an impulse to put a light on what is happening and help people tell their story. That came from love and care for those people.”
Back at the Eubank ranch, it’s a normal Saturday for the family. We’ve just returned from an afternoon horseback ride through the jungle and everyone settles into their weekend routines: Dave hops on the computer and answers a few emails, Karen begins preparation for a pot roast dinner, and the kids take the horses out to a nearby lake. I sit with Karen for the lowdown, knowing her vital role in the operation. Her relational, hospitable presence perfectly balances Dave’s laser-sharp focus, and her background in teaching makes her the ideal leader for FBR’s “Good Life Clubs” put on for the women and children in IDP camps.
I am eager to hear more about how she and Dave raise such a beautiful, adventurous family, and how they forge a fearless, united team while living in the tension between the unknown and the uncomfortable.
“There are four things God has given me, raising my kids in these crazy, risky places,” Karen says. “Generosity, hospitality, simplicity, and compassion. I want to teach my children these things, to give them as many eternal things as possible. Because you just don’t know your last day. I want to do as much as I can to bring them close to God.”
The values Karen and Dave pour into their children—Sahale (15), Suu (13), and Peter (10)— manifest in the field. The three kids exude selflessness, bravery, and finesse. Sahale, at thirteen years old, joined a training trip to Sudan to help displaced people who were being oppressed by a radical, Islamist government. Dave recalls Sahale’s fortitude as she filmed a bombing at the camp.
“We were on the ground and all I saw was her crouched for cover, her arm rigid, steadily filming the bombing,” he remembers. “Then she was on her feet running to the bomb craters, seeing if there was anybody hurt, filming the whole time.”
I finally address the obvious concern. “Aren’t you afraid? For your safety, for your family’s safety?”
He pauses and takes a breath; he’s clearly given this subject a lot of thought.
I love [the Burmese people]. Perfect love casts out fear. I’ll die with them if it comes to that. I won’t let them go down alone. Love is the greatest motivator and keeps us on the best path.”
My time with the Eubanks is coming to an end, and I can’t seem to wrap my mind around such fearless, selfless living. How am I going to go home and nestle back into my comfortable, daily routine as this family fights oppression head-on from halfway across the world? I believe in justice and in freedom, but what do I have to show for it? Why aren’t I putting everything on the line? What do I have to lose, really, when there is so much to gain?
I’m still wrestling with this, reconciling my comfort with my fears, trying to live a little more like Jesus, and thus a little more like Dave. His parting words haunt me, yet compel me to go deeper and further than ever before: “You’ve got one life, what else are you going to do with it? What are you going to hoard? Go for it. Make a difference.”
Photos by: Djae Outlaw
Brianna is a Pacific Northwest-based writer and editor who seeks stories that breathe hope and inspire action. Her favorite kinds of people are peacemakers, bridge-builders, storytellers, and dreamers. She is the Senior Writer at Nations Media.